State Prisoners Denied Access to Media

by Jean Fallow, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, 1402 - 3rd Ave., #421, Seattle, WA 98101;
The California Department of Corrections is considering making permanent an emergency regulation barring "specific-person face-to-face interviews" of state prison inmates by representatives of the media. The rule also prevents media representatives from using tape recorders, pens or paper during their interviews and allows prison officials to open inmatesU letters to journalists, which are now protected as confidential. The regulation is currently under review by the Office of Administrative Law, which will announce a decision by October 28.

The regulation would amend Sec. 15 CCR to stipulate that "media may be permitted random ... face-to-face interviews with inmates or parolees housed in facilities under the jurisdiction of the department," while prohibiting interviews with specific individuals. Boston Woodard, an inmate at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo who was fired as editor of the prison newspaper and put in lockdown for challenging the media ban, warns that prison officials will ensure that during "random" walkthroughs by media representatives, prison officers will "make sure youUre in an area where all the inmates you talk to randomly will have the IQ of a cinderblock." Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, argues that "there is no substitute for the opportunity to talk directly and candidly with specific individuals who either know the facts or can point to those who do."

Civil Liberties, Media and Prisoners' Rights Groups Protest

Of the 100 comments submitted to the Department of Corrections verbally or in writing on the issue, only one supported making the media ban permanent. Alan Schlosser, managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told the Bay area Recorder, "The prison system seems to be systematically and intentionally trying to seal off access of the public to information about what's going on behind prison walls." Moreover, Judy Greenspan of the HIV/AIDS in Prison Project notes that media interviews have been vital in helping her group obtain compassionate releases for dying prisoners. However, Corrections officials did not even attend the June hearings and told the media that "The policy issues have already been decided."

State officials justify the ban by contending that some prisoners seek to enhance their stature in correctional institutions through media attention, and that media exposure makes them inappropriate role models for youth. In an article entitled "Media's Much Ado About Nothing," California Department of Corrections Director James H. Gomez wrote, "Having special privileges is not consistent with why these criminal offenders were sent to prison. ... Criminals should lose most of their right when they go to prison. ThatUs why we send them to prison. Loss of freedoms is the punishment for their crimes. If they want these freedoms, they should obey the law and stay out of California prisons."

The Department also argues that crime victims may be traumatized by seeing their assailants on TV, and that media access to prisoners interferes with their "rehabilitation" and jeopardizes prison security. However, according to Ingrid Becker of the Bay area Recorder, "even the president of the correctional officers union is unable to cite a single major security problem caused by media coverage of prisoners."

Prison Guards Staged "Gladiator" Fights Between Inmates

Denying prisoners access to the media (and vice-versa) encourages the increasing isolation of a self-enclosed prison system where human rights abuses can multiply freely free of public oversight. In August the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles dealing egregious human rights abuses at the Corcoran State Prison, where guards released prisoners known to be enemies into the yard. They called the events "gladiator days" and took bets on which would "win" the ensuing fight. Sometimes they ended the fight by shooting -- and on at least one occasion killing -- one of the combatants.

Other incidents reported at Corcoran since 1989 include guards forcing new inmates to run a "gauntlet" where they were severely beaten; seven inmates shot dead and 50 wounded by prison guards; and a guard torturing of an inmate by applying electric shock to his testicles -- an incident witnessed by more than 20 people. Although a number of officers have been fired in the wake of some of these abuses, critics charge that problems are systemic rather than the result of actions by a few "rogue" officers. The prison is currently under investigation by the FBI after several guards disgusted by the brutality turned whistle-blowers. A media ban would help prevent the public from learning about similar abuses in the future.

Peter Y. Sussman, President of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists, comments, "Freedom of the press was enshrined in our Constitution specifically to guarantee the independence of the news media to report on issues of public concern. That independence does not exist when the very officials whose actions are being scrutinized are allowed to direct the news coverage." Sussman also notes that a number of other states, including Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Idaho, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and South Carolina have placed prohibitive restrictions on media contact with inmates, and warns that "The feds have a history of looking to California for blazing the trail on repressive measures in prisons."


If you live in California, please contact your state senator and representative urging that legislation be introduced to overturn the media ban and increase public and legislative oversight of conditions inside state prisons. Write letters to the editor of your local paper as well. If you live elsewhere, find out what the regulations are governing your state's prisons and tell your legislators that the public has a right to know what goes on in state prisons -- and that inmates should not be forced to sacrifice basic human rights.

Amendment VIII, U.S. Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

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Last Update: 1:43 AM on Friday, October 4, 1996.

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